Peppy PT Cruiser is sure to make you grin

Friday, April 30, 2004

Smile makers: puppies, kittens, babies, ducklings and PT Cruisers! Everywhere I went in this week's test vehicle the reaction was the same, smile after smile after smile. It seems everyone loves the little retro wagon from Chrysler. And why not? It's cute. It's practical. It's comfortable. It's quick. But more than anything else, it's different.

"What I like about them," says Mark Springer, my neighbor across the street, "is when you see one, you know right away that it is a PT Cruiser; it looks different than all the other cars on the road."

But different looks don't explain the excellent sales numbers the PT Cruiser has been racking up since its introduction in 2001. It's been huge for DaimlerChrysler, which turned out 144,717 of them last year -- more than the combined total of Plymouth and Dodge Neons on which the Cruiser is based. If you want to classify it as an SUV, then it is the seventh best selling SUV, right behind the Jeep Liberty, Chevy Tahoe, Ford Escape, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevy Trailblazer and Ford Explorer. But, if you ask me, that classification is a bit of a stretch. To me, "SUV" infers some towing and off-road capability, and I can't see taking the pretty little PT on anything but a smooth paved road. And, it is only rated to tow 1,000 pounds.

If I was in charge of car classifications, the PT would be a sporty, small station wagon, and in that category it would be third in sales, right behind Ford Focus and Ford Taurus, and well ahead of Subaru Legacy. And, if the PT Cruiser had been introduced with a turbo-charged engine right from the beginning, it would probably be the best-selling small station wagon on the market. Why? Because the Cruiser is an absolute blast to drive now that it has enough power! My test vehicle had a turbo-charged 2.4-liter engine producing 180 horsepower, coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission.

The PT always had the styling and pricing to attract plenty of attention. I'll never forget the first one I saw. I was headed west on Interstate 70 toward the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado, and in the slowest lane was a parade of four PTs. They weren't even on the market yet, so I assumed they were en route to an auto show, or were being test driven prior to introduction. All the traffic in the other two lanes was slowing down to take a look, and the gawkers were causing a traffic jam in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. The auto magazines had been lamenting the fact that the PTs would only be available with a 150-horsepower four cylinder engine, and at more than 3,000 pounds, their performance would be anemic, which explained why they were struggling up the mountain in the slow lane.

But today's turbo PT Cruiser is an entirely different animal. With performance to match its styling, the Cruiser takes on a different personality. It's not a sports car, but with zero to 60 times in around 7 seconds, the turbo-boosted PT can keep up with, or pass, most vehicles on the road. Steering is precise, and handling is better than average. The ride is quiet and surprisingly supple for a small car. The wheelbase is 103 inches -- about 2 inches longer than a Honda Element, even though the two vehicles are about the same length. Both have 2.4-liter engines. But that's where the similarities end. The PT is a few hundred pounds lighter than the Element, and with more horsepower it feels peppier. Like I said, the PT is closer in spirit to a sporty station wagon than an SUV.

There are four flavors of the PT Cruiser to choose from: base, midlevel Touring Edition (which I tested), luxury Limited Edition and the GT. The base PT comes well equipped with air conditioning, stereo with cassette and power windows. The Touring Edition, with a base price of $19,265, adds rear headrests, a thermometer and compass, foglights, deep-tint glass, keyless entry, power locks and mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels and a touring suspension. The Limited Edition includes leather-suede seats (with power height adjustment for the driver), side airbags, a moonroof, cruise control and chrome wheels. The GT comes standard with an even more powerful 215-horse turbo-charged engine, along with a sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels, tuned exhaust and leather seats. If that's not fancy enough, consider the "Woody" package, which features simulated wood paneling along the body sides, and a flame-accented paint job, which is available in four color schemes.

My test vehicle had many of the features of the Limited Edition, including side airbags, a moonroof, cruise control, power height adjuster on the driver's seat and chrome wheels, which boosted the MSRP to $24,450, but also added to the driving pleasure. The driving position was excellent. The firm front bucket seats were outstanding. The oversize, four-spoke steering wheel was part of the retro fashion and fun, along with the painted dash panels and the billiard-ball-topped straight stick protruding out of the floor. All around you are interesting details, and a feeling of value beyond the asking price. With the flexibility of foldable or removable rear seats for expanding the already good cargo space, the PT becomes almost irresistible. If I had one I'd be cruising Broadway all the time with the moonroof open and a big smile on my face.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at srobertson@semissourian.com.

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